On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Apollo lunar lander and became the first human to make direct contact with a celestial body: Earth’s Moon.
The Apollo 11 engineering and flight team had prepared extensively for that historic day. As millions watched on their televisions, and as others listened to Armstrong’s famed words across the airwaves, the 1969 moonwalk would forever be imprinted in the American public’s collective memory. Not only did the Apollo 11 team make history, it sparked future scientists to embark on serious astronomical inquiry for decades to come. This scientific research has vastly expanded the understanding of our planet, solar system, and wider universe.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned mission to the Moon with the unveiling of the Cosmic Origins exhibition in the museum’s Earth & Planetary Sciences gallery. An original sample of lunar rock, collected by Astronaut Alan L. Bean from the Moon’s surface during the NASA Apollo 12 mission on November 19, 1969, is displayed as the highlight of the mini-exhibit. This rock is an ilmenite basalt, which formed from cooled magma roughly 3.2 billion years ago when the Moon was geologically active. Its presence on the Moon suggests that the lunar surface was once molten, a theory reinforced by other rock samples collected during the Apollo missions. The museum is honored to be able to share it with the public.
At the Lyndon B. Johnson NASA Space Center, scientists study such samples to tease apart the history of the Moon, and to generate hypotheses about its formation. Refining the details of our Moon’s origin story will continue to engage astrophysicists and geologists for many years to come.
The science behind the exhibit was informed by Rebecca A. Fischer, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Alyssa Goodman, Robert Wheeler Wilson Professor of Applied Astronomy, co-Director for Science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution, and a team of Harvard University graduate students from both Earth and Planetary Sciences and Astronomy.
Fischer says, "Our understanding of the formation and evolution of the Moon and its relationship to Earth has benefited tremendously from the lunar rock samples returned from the Apollo missions, one of which is on display in the Cosmic Origins exhibit. With new advances in science over the years, we continue to learn more and more from these priceless samples. Ongoing research in Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences utilizes these samples to better understand how the Moon and Earth formed and what the Moon is made of."